Individuals are, so we're told, are free to make their own choices. The individual is a sovereign agent, i.e wholly owning of his or her own actions. So the individual have the right to live their own lives as they wish, albeit within certain limits -- one such limit being that they do no impinge upon the rights of others to do the same. At least this is (one, popular) liberal theory. But it seems that some choices by people are offensive even to liberals; and even when their choices have absolutely no bearing on the other individuals. And perhaps the most offensive choice someone -- in particular a female -- can make today is to volutarily wear a headscarf, especially if she happens to be Muslim (so it would seem). Here is a case in point:
Wearing a headscarf is no big deal... unless you happen to be a Muslim, in which case this simple piece of cloth arouses opinions, hostile glances and worse.
When I converted to Islam I knew I would have to embrace the Muslim head-dress. As for many converts, it was a huge stumbling block and I found all sorts of excuses not to wear the hijab - basically a symbol of modesty and a very public statement. When I finally did, the repercussions were enormous. All I did was put on a headscarf, but from that moment I became a second-class citizen.
The reaction from some people was unbelievable. I knew I would become a target for abuse from the odd Islamaphobic oik, but I didn't expect so much open hostility from complete strangers.
I can no longer be sure of getting a black cab in London... something I had taken for granted for many years.
The response to Yvonne Ridley's (who became famous for being arrested and detained by the Taliban, and then infamous for becoming a Muslim) article in the Observer was outrage; an outrage that, as one correspondent (one Nick Alexander from London SE22) put it, "seems a retrograde step to voluntarily put the clock back" (emphasis added). So an individual exercising their own right to wear something, for whatever reason, is a "retrograde" step. Why? Let's allow the other correspondents to explain:
[T]he decisions of women such as Ridley help to maintain the status of all women as 'second-class citizens'. [Victoria Dutchman-Smith of Oxford]
[The headscarf] represents an alien doctrine that treats women as enshrouded, segregated second-class citizens. One that requires abasement five times a day. [A Adler of London SW17]
Ridley should consider the possibility that some of those 'glaring passengers' might have lost relatives to the terrorist organisations whose fashion sense she shares. [David Thompson of Ranmoor, Sheffield]
So it seems that individuals can make illiberal choices in their capacity as sovereign agents (i.e. totally owning of their actions) that upset or offend 'liberal values', even when they have made no visible choice that endangers or harms another individual. It even seems that even wearing a headscarf can be tantamount to support for "terrorism". Of course, we don't say that every white Briton should be the subject of scrutiny and vitriol because white racists of the BNP and neo-Nazi groups attack and murder blacks or Asians. But it is perfectly rational to draw a relationship between a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf and real or perceived atrocities commited against women in Muslim societies or acts of terrorism commited by Muslims. 
There was similar outrage in Europe (and definitely in the UK) at the Bush victory. The perception that the US electorate had made an irrational choice to base their vote on the issue of so-called "moral values" was the subject of dismay by many liberal British journalists. The reaction of liberal Europe to a recent controversy involving Rocco Buttiglione, an Italian official in the EU and a practicing Roman Catholic, shows a similar distate for personal choice if deemed irrational and illiberal.  But this is hardly a new observation, for as Asad notes that "a basic liberal principle [is that] Individuals have the inalienable right to choose, but must first be constituted as persons who will make the right moral and political choices" (emphasis added). 
Of course, by no means, am I suggesting the letters or these incidents are totally representative view in anyway of "liberalism" (which is multifaceted and multilayered). But if "liberalism" is more than an academic text, and is meant to be embodied in society at large, than the letters section of a liberal newspaper is by no means totally unrepresentative. It may well be quite representative of how ideas are played out by sections of "society at large" (given that the letters are penned by a "random" sample and the newspapers sold and bought by a certain type of people -- "liberals").
There is a salient point here. Many liberal -- including Muslim -- critics attack the idea that wearing a headscarf, not only for some perceived attack on 'secular liberal values' (if that is the case with the above), but because they claim there is no religious obligation for women to wear the headscarf (as one other correspondent put it). Moreso than this they would also claim that the wearing of the headscarf, especially in an European context, is the adoption of symbols of allegiance to "religious movements", because it is axiomatic that religious movements threaten us all, and further that this particular "religious movement" is hostile to liberal Europe. This is even enshrined in a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights.  The response from a Muslim woman who might don the hijab would be to say that, in fact, she does not see it as a symbol of allegiance, but does regard it as a religious obligation. So it seems that there is a conflict as to what makes the Muslim woman's religion.
But at what stage does this conflict end and where does it lead? After all, it is an obligatory act for a Muslim to pray five times a day; further, this ought to be prayed in congregation. True, mosque building is flourishing in the UK. And many employers make some sort of provision for Muslim prayers (though I understand this is not about legal conformity, i.e. being mandatory on employers by the force of some legal act). But what if, using the same arguments (i.e. "secular" versus "religious" "values") that are used to attack the headscarf, Muslims are asked to abandon their prayers, because they are deemed "provocative"? Quite obviously, and boldly, the qui-daily prayer is something that reinforces Muslim beliefs and practices, or "Muslim values". I dare say moreso than the headscarf. In other words how far ought Muslims go to reshape what they perceive to be religious duties whereby (to quote) "such proclamations of adherence to a creed so at odds with prevailing secular attitudes" are no longer deemed "provocative" (see the letter from A Alder)? No doubt these same people would champion the "provocative" nature of Bezhti, a recent play by a Sikh woman which casued 'distress' to some Sikhs and forced the play to be abandoned, or the publication of The Satanic Verses. [6, 7]
An interesting comparison can be raised with the attitudes towards Muslim men who grow a beard. Apart from one fairly high-profile case involving a young Muslim male , the wearing of beards by men has not been the subject of much controversy, even though many Muslim men would hold that growing a beard has some level of obligatoriness. This seems to underline my own contention that a Muslim female wearing a headscarf attracts more vitriol or accusations of "provocation". Misogyny against Muslim women (specifically)? The reader can decide. More compelling still is that Sikh men, who grow beards (even "unkempt" ones -- see the link above) and wear turbans, have even been protected from discrimination by English law because of their status as an ethnic (as opposed to merely religious) group.  The Sikh man who wants to keep his identity is not wearing any sort of symbolic gesture that is attached to "terrorism" or "anti-modern" movements, even though Sikhs have long fought the Indian state for a homeland (the Indian state accuses some Sikh groups of "terrorism"); and Sikh men have been tried and found guilty of "honour crimes"; and Sikh families are also somewhat "traditional" in their makeup. Maybe the testimony of Sikhs males, as to why they wear what they do, is worth twice that of a Muslim females on the same question?
Here we also seem to encounter the move away from 'secular' as being essentially neutral in religion (that is the claim anyway) to one being anti-religion (or anti-a certain religion -- it seems that secular Europe has inherited a dislike, or a disquiet at best, of Islam from its Christian forefathers).
I should make clear that my point is not to weigh in on the debate on the 'headscarf debate' -- this is an altogether different argument, one which requires moving to the Islamic traditions and analysing the various "texts" as well as various attitudes and practices. I am looking at this from another angle: what is the rhetoric surrounding the 'headscarf controversy' (given that there is one) from people who would otherwise claim to defend the "rights" of the individual, and what might this mean for Muslims in Europe?
 Thanks to Yusuf Smith, whose post brought the letters in the Observer to my attention (as well as being informative in and of itself).
 I can fully understand that perceptions are strong and difficult to break down in all quarters. But this is the point of this post: To ask us to look at our perceptions (including Muslims).
 It was probably all the more shocking to have a defender of public justice make these comments, especially given Europe's reaction to the 'role' of religion in the US. Ironically, the Italian at the centre of the controversy made what was a public avowal of 'secularism' as generally understood. I also saw an interview by Buttiglione given to BBC News 24's HARDtalk programme, where he again stressed his right to have his "private" beliefs (i.e. as a Roman Catholic who believs homsexuality is sinful; something which exists in the Bible -- not a proscribed text in Europe -- and a view probably held by many Catholics in Europe) and his "public" role as an official in the EU where he would be defending the core rights of all EU citizens (e.g. protecting the rights of homosexuals). He constantly said that he saw a clear distinction between the legal (or political) and the ethical and moral spheres (the so-called "Kantian" basis for politics), even charging his critics of violating the roots of modern European politics by blurring the distinction between the two. A counter-charge is that someone who claims to defend the rights of ethnic minorities would not be allowed to say he dislikes (if all "morality" boils down to is 'like' and 'dislike') black or Asian peoples, while at the same time suggesting that he would defend their rights. Readers might be interested in a piece from Stephen Pollard on this issue.
 Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1993, p. 276. This is brough up admist a discussion on "Britishness" and Muslims in the aftermath of the Rushdie affair.
 I've blogged on this before.
 Note the comments of the National Theatre's artistic director that audiences "do not have the right" not to be offended. Yet it seems that the rich and famous have this right because they can afford expensive legal cases and prove this to a court of law. This isn't too surprising, muses Asad: "Modern law cannot cope with the idea of [...] moral or spiritual injury because it cannot locate and quantify the damage in monetary terms" (Ibid., p. 282). Ian Hacking makes a somewhat similar point that cost-benefit thinking has an important role in how modern societies function, from law to politics even to human rights (see his works on probablity, chance and numbers, especially The Taming of Chance, and his earlier discussions in The Social Construction of What?). Interestingly, Salman Rushdie recently complained in a letter to the Independent that he was offended by a column from Terence Blacker, who attacked him and his marriage. The Indian writer also threatened a playwright with legal action, when he penned a story based on (but not about) Rushdie's predicament post-Satanic Verses, where the author is ultimately killed (Asad, Genealogies, pp-283-4, fn.9). It seems Intertionally Famous Artists can be offended by Considerabley Less And Not So Internationally Famous Artists. On this point (of being offended) S. Parvez Manzoor mockingly asks: "Thus, while [Rushdie] contends that the publication of his novel is a matter of the sacred right of free expression [...] he is also adamant that the Jurist's legal opinion [the fatwa of Khomeyni] enjoys no such privileges [...] If so, our quandary is: by the exercise [of] which higher norm may we allow one text the right to free expression and publication but deny it to the other? How must we, in short, arbitrate between these two contending texts?" The language is polemical (by the author's own admission), but the point beneath is a worthwhile one. Here it might also be noteworthy to comment for whom, if anyone, both artistic and literary endeavours are being performed, and from where. For a closer inspection might reveal it isn't the Sikh or Islamic traditions, but the more powerful liberal tradition in the UK, which is shaped by the "middle-classes" (because proles from the sink estates do not fashion or mould "liberal values", it should be noted).
 The reader might think I am being a little over the top, a little extreme, in my example of the prayer. But it isn't that far fetched if one considers the issue of "ritual slaughter". Twice it has come under criticism from a government commission. But the much more powerful Jewish religious authorities persuaded the government to back down from this decision; thankfully, our joint Islamo-Judaic (how's that for a new civilisation?) heritage saved us from having to become vegetarian. In 2001 The Liberal Democracts adopted the FAWC (the commission who report on animal welfare to the government) of "humane slaughter", though the Party do not specify exactly what they mean by this "adoption"; the FAWC are much clearer about what they mean by "humane slaughter" -- it is not "ritual slaughter".
 Intrestingly, a BNP activist who also worked for Richard Branson's Virgin Trains was granted minimum damages by the same tribunal after he was expelled from Aslef, the train drivers' union. Aslef had stated that they did not want their members 'spewing racism'. (Branson is also famous for having a beard.)
 The Mandla vs Dowell Lee case in 1983 was brought before Britain's highest legal authority to determine whether or not Sikhs were an ethnic group, and so protected by the Race Relations Act of 1976. See this link for more information. Note the words of the Sikh group, to which the link will take the reader; they see the ruling as making "it easier for Sikhs to participate in public life without compromising their identity" (emphasis added). Jews also have such protection. Also Quakers and Jews are the only groups in English law who do not have to conform to the Marriages Act 1754 (which is still, essentially, the basis for marriage laws today, with some modifications). But it is highly "provocative" of Muslims to be making such demands of the State, as has been the case in many recent high-profile cases involving schools and the jilbab.